WWII Seabees and the Invasion of Sicily

By Lara Godbille, Director, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command

Photos courtesy of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Port Hueneme, Calif., Naval History and Heritage Command.

In preparation for the invasion of Sicily in 1943, Seabees break ground and build landing strips and other facilities for needed operations.

The Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, was a major World War II campaign, in which the Allies took Sicily from the Axis (Italy and Nazi Germany). Beginning on 9-10 July 1943 and ending 17 August 1943, Operation Husky was a large-scale amphibious and airborne operation followed by six weeks of land combat which successfully opened the way to the Allied invasion of Italy.

The general plans of the Allies called for the use of Sicily as a stepping stone to the European mainland. There was only one barrier to be hurdled: the little island of Pantelleria that stood midway between Tunisia and Sicily. Gen. Carl Spaatz, commander, Northwest African Air Forces, attacked Pantelleria from the air. Less than a month after Tunisia fell, Pantelleria surrendered.

On July 10, 1943, our forces moved up from the African bases. With an invasion force of some 3,200 landing-craft and ships, the Allies landed men and equipment on the southern side of Sicily. It was a perilous undertaking, with inclement weather adding to the difficulties. The landings were made between the cities of Licata and Syracuse. After bitter resistance, our troops fanned out and within 10 days held nearly half of the island; within 38 days the conquest of Sicily was complete.

Seabees played a vital role in the initial landings on Sicily as well as in subsequent consolidation and development of the island.

LST "unloading" via causeway and an LCM "using" causeway as a dock.

The amphibious invasion of Sicily presented a different problem from that of North Africa where the invaders had a choice of many landing beaches widely scattered between Algiers and Casablanca. Sicily had a few suitable beaches on the northern shore which, to the enemy, was a logical place for the Allies to make an invasion attempt.

Allied plans first called for an assault on the northern shores of the island, east and west of Palermo. However, reconnaissance pictures showed this was just what the enemy was expecting, and that formidable defenses were being built. Accordingly, the landings were made on the southern coast, where the wide shallow-water shelf had given the enemy a false sense of security. The 175-foot pontoon causeways perfected at Arzeu and Bizerte were the prime factor in permitting our forces to make the sally against the southern shores. The causeways were manned by three platoons from the 54th Construction Battalion, one platoon from the 1005th Construction Battalion Detachment, and 12 platoons from the 1006th Construction Battalion Detachment.

The causeway pontoons worked under tremendous difficulties caused by both the flat beach condition and the high winds. When the invasion fleet arrived off the Sicilian coast at 0200 on July 10, 1943, a five-foot surf was running around both Gela and Licata. The Germans were confident that Allied forces would not attempt to land. Indeed, this decision hung in the balance for several hours.

Upon orders to go in, LST-389, carrying a causeway and a platoon of Seabees, opened her bow doors and lowered her ramp to let the DUKWs, or six-wheeled amphibious vehicles colloquially referred to as “Ducks,” out. The high waves broke the ramp chains so that the bow doors could not be closed. The run to the beach had to be made under these conditions, the tank deck being two feet under water. All the lead LSTs experienced similar difficulties, and Seabees left ashore were soaking wet and without food. During 23 days of round-the-clock work, the Seabees unloaded more than 10,000 vehicles over the causeways.

CBD 1006 Platoon J and causeways in side carry position aboard LST 388 enroute across the Mediterranean for the Sicilian Invasion.

One difficult operation prior to the actual landing was charting the channels, shoals and bars at the landing points. Amphibious DUKWs and some depth-sounding devices were first employed for this work at Gela, Sicily. In a short time after leaving the LSTs, the channels were charted and marked. One instance of the value of such a precaution occurred where a sand bar was located 150 yards from shore, at a depth of only 2 feet. However, just past the bar, the water deepened to 8 or 10 feet. Had landing boats started to unload on that bar, undoubtedly many lives would have been lost.

After the charting, the DUKWs were efficiently used for handling causeways, transporting supplies from ship-to-shore-to-firing-line and evacuating wounded.

At Sicily, the Seabees not only performed their assigned tasks of getting motorized equipment and supplies ashore, but also aided in other ways. Following closely behind the first wave of invaders, the Seabees saved the lives of troops aboard a bombed and blazing LST by throwing a pontoon bridge between their vessel and the stricken ship. Over this makeshift causeway, between 150 and 200 Allied soldiers raced to the Seabee craft for safety. The Seabees also saved vehicles. When one of the causeway pontoon bridges had been blown up, the Seabees went to work as a salvage unit. In the first day, they salvaged approximately 100 small boats which had broached on the beach.

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